The Story in Matthew
Christmas is coming. On that day, Christians around the world honor the birth of their Savior. In story, film, pageant, painting, and song, they recount the miracle of his birth to a virgin mother. They share the joy of the shepherds and magi when they hear the news. Although embellished over the years to include such niceties as a drummer boy and a babushka, the Christmas story originated in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Let’s look, for instance, at the Gospel of Matthew. The author writes:
When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son, and he named him Jesus.Matt 1:18-25 NRSV
It’s a fantastic story. Who would believe a woman could become pregnant without intercourse?
But perhaps we shouldn’t have to. As some scholars point out, “virgin” is not an accurate translation of the Hebrew word almah that is in the portion of Isaiah that Matthew quotes. A better translation might be: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son” (Isa 7:14 NRSV).
On the other hand, it is true that almah typically refers to an unmarried adolescent, so it’s not unreasonable to assume this passage is referring to a “virgin.” Yet there’s nothing in the Isaiah chapter that implies this young woman had to be a virgin when she conceived. 
That raises the question of how we might interpret the Isaiah reading. As Herbert M. Wolf points out, in his article, “A Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah,” scholars don’t agree on what the quoted prophecy means, nonetheless what the entire chapter is talking about. Yet he makes it clear that, until Matthew, none of them imagined Isaiah was speaking about the birth of a messiah, especially not the Messiah. 
It’s all in the interpretation.
Virgin or Not?
But in the story as Matthew tells it, how we interpret Isaiah and how we translate the term almah, doesn’t really matter. His narrative tells it all. Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit, not by a man. For him, this act fulfilled the prophecy set forth in Isaiah, and, according to his interpretation of that prophecy, it meant that one day a virgin would become pregnant, she would have a son, and that son would be God with us. In other words, Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.
To argue against his interpretation with facts or logic makes little sense. Matthew was creating a mythology. To do so, he described his experience of the holy, his relationship with God and with Christ. His story didn’t have to be strictly factual to be true. It doesn’t matter whether or not he translated Isaiah’s words accurately, or even if his interpretation of the passage fit the popular view. He communicated something important about the divine and the community of Jews he belonged to.
He believed he, and they, were called to worship a man who was also a god. When we discount his tale because it doesn’t fit our scientific paradigm, when we argue that pregnant women aren’t virgins, we miss the point.
That is also true if we try to defend Matthew’s gospel as inerrant or literal. Such a limited understanding of Scripture can blind us to the magic, and the depth of meaning, found in the biblical stories.
Other Miraculous Births
What about other stories of miraculous conceptions? It seems they were pretty common in antiquity.
The Hindu god, Krishna, for instance, was created when the god Vishnu entered his mother, Devaki. Although she wasn’t a virgin, having by then conceived seven children in the normal way, no intercourse was involved when she conceived Krishna. The mother of Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism, became pregnant when touched by a beam of light. The Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, was conceived during a dream his mother had about the god Ometeotl.  Buddha’s mother also became pregnant during a dream, this time by a white elephant carrying a lotus flower who struck her on her side, thus placing Buddha’s seed into her.  The mothers of Taoism’s two founders, the Yellow Emperor and Lao Tzu, both conceived miraculously. A lightning bolt sent from the Big Dipper impregnated the Yellow Emperor’s mother, and Lao Tzu entered his mother’s womb while she gazed at a star. 
Did anyone believe these things literally happened? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Like Jesus’ birth story, these myths affirm the specialness of these men. The mythos arose around them, and the stories that were part of that mythos, helped create the religion their followers built.
Myths Are Not Lies
We in the Western world often think that if we can’t touch it or analyze it, it isn’t true. That’s why people spend so much time focusing on the details of the Christian story. If we can prove they’re factual, then Scripture is true; if we can’t, it isn’t.
But this focus on rationality misses the point. As Jeffrey H. Tigay writes in his article about the prophet Jonah, “All this feverish concern to rationalize the miracle stems from excessive preoccupation with its historical plausibility rather than its function within the narrative.” 
Matthew wasn’t trying to write an accurate history of Jesus’s life. He wanted to ground early Christianity in the Jewish tradition. He and the people for whom he wrote were Jews, and the story of Moses and the covenant mattered to them. Rather than trying to destroy the law, Jesus, according to Matthew, had come to fulfill it. Tying him, and his birth, to the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures was one way he did that. 
For us to argue that, hey, he’s not being logical, or that his use of the word “virgin” is not completely accurate, or his interpretation of Isaiah is unlike those of most Jewish scholars, means little in the context of his gospel. Just because a myth is not factual does not make it a lie. Indeed, our attempts to either justify a literal interpretation of Scripture or discredit the gospel entirely, do not get at the heart of what Matthew was trying to do. He wanted us to understand that Jesus was the Messiah, the one the Jews were waiting for, and that through him, all the nations of the earth would be saved.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we have to believe his message. For us, Jesus might not be the savior. In fact, we might not believe in the idea of a savior at all. We can’t force someone to believe or not believe.
For my first year of seminary, I attended a Presbyterian school. As a Unitarian Universalist with no grounding in the Bible, I was not your typical seminarian. Some of my Christian classmates took it upon themselves to evangelize me. At first, I dialogued with them, perhaps hoping they would see the error of their ways. They didn’t; nor did I. In good Christian fashion, they loved me and prayed for me, but they knew I was going to hell.
Neither of us would be moved. We believed what we believed. I enjoyed analyzing the Bible, exploring what it might mean to me, finding the love and the justice inherent in the stories that sometimes seemed so cruel and judgmental. Yet my approach was not theirs.
The Dangers of Literal Interpretations
Although I consider myself to be mystical, I ground my beliefs in science and reason, which is the typical Unitarian way. Because of this, I can’t take the Bible literally. Nor do I think the biblical stories were meant to be read that way. Was Mary really a virgin? I doubt Matthew thought she was. Although he probably thought God created everything and had a hand in history, and though he probably believed Jesus was the fulfillment of the covenant, I suspect he wrote the myth of Mary’s virginity less to convince us of a fact than to emphasize the mystery of a God made flesh.
If we interpret the Bible literally, we can miss this underlying meaning.
In the Western world, we understand myth as something invented, even false. But a mythology is the collection of stories and traditions that make up a people’s history, beliefs, ethos. They aren’t always literal, yet when we insist they have to be, the rationalizations we create in our minds can blind us to their meaning. Myths, even biblical ones, tell us what, not what is factual, but what is true.
Besides, if our faith depends on Scripture being inerrant, we’re likely to be disillusioned. After all, the Bible is filled with inconsistencies and unscientific events. If we isolate ourselves, read only those blogs that agree with us, turn the television off when it disputes our cherished beliefs, we won’t feel too threatened, but we won’t be comfortable in institutions of higher education, we won’t want our children to attend public schools, and nature shows might make us squeamish with all their talk of dinosaurs and carbon dating.
The Christmas Story
Not that any of us are completely open. During my early days in seminary, I was as arrogant in my beliefs as were the Christian evangelists I studied with. I thought I would convert them to humanism. My failures helped me gain a richer and more compassionate understanding of Christianity, and I came to love the Bible. That doesn’t mean I will ever think of it literally. Though I try to be aware of my biases, and to be open, I am entrenched in my worldview.
I suspect, however, that I can be more open than the evangelistic students I knew. For one thing, I can admit I don’t have the answers. My theology is grounded in awe and mystery, and I seek to learn, hoping one day I might understand.
So I look at the Christmas story as told by Matthew, and I wonder what he’s trying to tell us. Could he be proclaiming that he has an important tale to tell us, about a child who will grow up to change the world?
If I suspend my disbelief and enter into the myth Matthew created, I might see as he saw things. Then I would be open to the possibility that God exists and that God brought forth a son of his own body because he wanted all of us to know him and be in relationship with him.
The Possibility of Miracles
From this gospel, I also learn that miracles are possible. You don’t have to be rich or important to be chosen by God. You can be a lowly, young woman, and you can still be touched by the divine.
I also learn from Joseph’s assumptions about Mary and his ability to admit his mistake and forgive. Rather than focusing on revenge, he chooses love.
Additionally, Matthew’s gospel teaches me that, though evil and terror exist in the world, every generation there are born to women people who will change the world for the better. These are the ones we remember. They speak of love, compassion, equanimity, kindness, and goodness, and sometimes their followers found religions.
Matthew’s gospel tells the story of one such a person, a baby who grew up to preach about the power of love, and who, in his death, modeled what it means to be obedient to one’s calling and strong in one’s vulnerability.
Jesus’s birth was humble and miraculous. No matter who we are or how lowly our origins, we have the power to turn the world into something a little more loving and a little more kind.
Did Mary become pregnant without disturbing her virginity? It doesn’t matter, because either way, the Christmas story holds truths that can change our lives. It can change our lives if we listen, not to the facts, but to the message it contains about love, kindness, and humility.
Stories affect us because they stir our hearts. Don’t worry about the details. Just let the words touch you.
In faith and fondness,
- Wolf, Herbert M. “A Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-8:22.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 91, no. 4, 1972, pp. 449–456, 456. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3263678. Accessed 19 Dec. 2020.
- Ibid, see entire article.
- “Miraculous Births,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miraculous_births, accessed 12/16/20.
- O’Brien, Barbara, “The Birth of the Buddha,” Learn Religions, Mach 27, 2018, https://www.learnreligions.com/the-birth-of-the-buddha-449783, accessed 12/16/20.
- “Miraculous Births.”
- Tigay, Jeffrey H., “The Book of Jonah and the Days of Awe,” Conservative Judaism, 38 [1985 – 86]: 71).
- Koester, Helmut, “The Gospel of Matthew: Jesus as the New Moses,” PBS,April 1998, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/story/matthew.html, accessed 12/19/20.
Photo by of baby’s feet Janko Ferlic on Unsplash
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